Recognition is the best reward for people who aren’t motivated by ego, money or power.
Those folks are my kind of heroes – ordinary people who, motivated by conscience, necessity or circumstance, do extraordinary things. They are why the Esmonde Awards were created years ago, to give a pat on the back to local folks whose words or deeds made our community better. The annual Ezzys come with no plaque or certificate, just a hearty “nice job” to those who made a difference.
Ron Meegan: Following in the spirit of Lois Gibbs, Meegan was among the scores of people living in the shadow of Tonawanda Coke whose lives were altered – and consciousness raised – by the ill effects of toxic fumes. The retired Tonawanda parks worker never set out to become an environmentalist. But he joined an army of foot soldiers in protests, meetings and petitions with the citizen-based Clean Air Coalition, after decades of breathing emissions from the plant left him asthmatic. Other neighbors are in worse shape, blaming cancers or diseases on benzene and other carcinogens spewing from the factory. They got a measure of justice last March, when the company was convicted of numerous federal pollution violations. In his citizen activism, Meegan exemplifies all of the afflicted who helped to bring Tonawanda Coke to justice.
Sergio Rodriguez: Two-party democracy is an endangered species in Buffalo, which makes Rodriguez the political equivalent of the blue whale. The 33-year-old former Marine mounted a spirited Republican campaign for mayor, despite having little money, less name recognition and virtually no chance of victory in a city where Democrats outnumber his kind 7-to-1. But some battles are worth fighting, on general principle. Rodriguez’s months-long labors struck a small blow for representative government and garnered him 30 percent of the vote – more than a well-funded Republican managed eight years ago. Well done, and thanks for trying.
John Young: We can’t resurrect one of Buffalo’s pioneering ‘wing kings’ from the dead, but we can honor his entrepreneurial spirit. Young ran several East Side chicken wing places in the 1960s, around the same time the Bellissimo family was launching from the Anchor Bar the wing rocket that would encircle the globe. Young’s breaded-and-sauced version of the chicken appendage never captured the country’s gastronomical imagination. But his early variation is a historical footnote that merited him posthumous entry into the Hall of Flame at September’s National Buffalo Wingfest.
Jason Wilson/Bernice Radle: The preservationist power couple, who are engaged, are helping to define the next generation of the movement. They are on the front lines of building protection, having joined the successful fight to save the Trico, while battling in vain last year to salvage the Bethlehem Steel administration building. But their reach extends to neighborhood revitalization. It ranges from a guerrilla movement of volunteers who seal battered buildings, to the couple’s buy-and-rehab efforts with a half-dozen West Side houses – including the bungalow they soon will call home. With them and a like-minded platoon of cohorts around, I think the city’s iconic assets – and reviving neighborhoods – are in good hands.